Communities, PLEs, small groups, & power

Posted by gminks in social learning | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

My mom loves telling the following story about me, to emphasize the fact that I have always been bossy. I am the oldest, and I have one brother who is 16 months younger than me and another who is 3 and a half years younger (there are seven of us in all). Apparently, we all played together very nicely until my brothers discovered that they didn’t have to play exactly they way I told them to play.

Once they figured this out, they would let me play with them as long as I didn’t try and dictate the rules. This is one of the reasons I think I get along with guys so well, I was never allowed to play with my brothers if I started “acting like a girl” (whatever that means!). Obviously, my brothers had found a way to turn the tables and exercise control over me. However, and this is the part of the story that my mother relishes, I still had a way to exercise my power. I would just pick up and leave. Refuse to play because they didn’t play by my rules. You would think that I would have gained a partner when I had a sister but that didn’t work out (thanks alot Sissy!!).

What does this story have to do with corporate education? This may take more than one post, so please indulge me for having to explain this in my story-telling way. 🙂

Lots of learning happens in the social spaces, whether it is the social interaction of communities formed during a formal class, or the informal learning that happens when we traverse our Personal Leaning Environment (PLE) to get to the best community for the (learning) job. Knowing the control mechanisms in all the learning communities we encounter may just help us learn faster. And if you are designing instruction, understanding control can mean the difference between enabling and hindering learning for those who participate in the events you design.

Before I get to the control topic, I want to talk about the social part.

Communities follow many of the same rules that the small worlds described by Dr. Elfreda Chatman follow.  Dr. Chatman theorized that groups have their own style, or signature. This signature is defined by particular attributes of a group:

  • How the group will handle certain events
  • What topics will be discussed
  • What topics will be excluded from discussion
  • How do interactions happen between group members?
  • How do interactions happen between group members and outsiders?
  • What is the level of meaning of certain terms and traditions/ceremonies?

If you know all of the components of the signature, you’ll be treated like an insider to the community. You may even know most of the components, and you may be granted access to the community. But if you unknowingly break one of the community rules: you don’t use the correct jargon, or you communicate in a way that is not approved by the group, then your outsider status will be affirmed by everyone in the group.

This is what was happening with my brothers. As long as I deferred to the rules they made for our small group – that I could never tell them how to do anything – I was allowed entrance to the group. But if I got bossy, or “played like a girl”, I wasn’t allowed to play.

Or check out this example. The comic shows the differences in the way HR (one community) and programmers (another community) see the same information, in this case a resume. HR may push your resume through to the tech interview with glowing recommendations, but the programmer won’t understand why someone who only knows one language even made it through to them. You may have fooled HR into thinking you were a programmer, but you broke the norms of the real geek who is now going to pound you with ridiculously nit picky technical questions.

So understanding the style or signature of a community gives you quite a bit of power, starting with the power to belong to a community as an insider. This insider status is important because it gives you access to the real interactions and workings of the group. It is probably what drives the tighter collaborations that lead to real innovation.

On the other hand, if you don’t bother to even investigate what the style of a given community may be, you give that power over to the members of the group. In most cases, you will be given limited access (at best) to communities for which you don’t bother to determine a style.

Let’s get back to the idea of power in a community or network. Manuel Castells asserted:

… in this network society, power continues to be the fundamental structuring force of its shape and direction. But power does not reside in institutions, not even in the state or in large
corporations. It is located in the networks that structure society. Or, rather, in what I propose to call the ‘switchers’; that is, the mechanisms connecting or disconnecting networks on the basis of certain programmes or strategies.

From Network Logic: Who Governs in an Interconnected World

I think that this idea- power residing in the mechanisms that connect or disconnect networks -is really key to designing communities and educational events. We have to figure out how to empower members and learners to create a dedicated connection to the community we have built. We have to look at how the controls we put in place (you know, that list of stuff that defines our community) interact with the signatures of groups with which we have invited to connect. Are there too many conflicts between the group we have created and those invited groups, so that any connection that is made will be constantly flapping? Or have we done our homework about the signatures of all groups involved so that when connections are made, they are stable and lasting?

There has to be a way to increase connectivity by decreasing the likelihood that the use of power will be members deciding to disconnect from the network because of conflicting group signatures. The practical application of making this happen is the hard part….and will have to wait for another post.

If you have ideas on practical application, or if you want to weigh in on the whole idea of power in networks/communities/groups, please drop them in the comments!

4 Responses to Communities, PLEs, small groups, & power

  1. Great post. Certainly made me stop and think.

    I see two topics in your post. The first is improving learning events and processes. Things are changing much more rapidly than in the past. Learning events need to take our rapidly changing and connected world into account.

    The second topic is how we set up environments where learning can occur “naturally” because of the structure of the members of the community. This second topic needs to be explored in more detail and I hope others post their thoughts on this topic. I don’t have any ideas right now on how to harness the power of networks/communities/groups, just a few questions.

    I’ll address structured learning first. For me, the key point is practical application. The world is changing. Communication methods and modes of learning are impacted by changing and new technologies. I’m going to leave the questions of technology to you and others.

    The question I’d like to address is: Does the something new contribute to making learning occur? Whether it is a new technology or process, or just the next new thing, the question remains. How can it contribute to learning? How does something contribute to learning? Does that something enhance learning? I measure learning by how effectively it is applied. A learner must be able to successfully apply what they have learned. Can the learner do what they need to do, in whatever situation they need to do it? If the answer to that question is yes, then the training was effective.

    What about the process of designing instruction? There is no question that learning happens in social spaces. But are there objectives in place? The question becomes, how does an instructional designer use or account for learning that occurs in social spaces? Is there a way to piggy-back onto social space learning? What role can control mechanisms play? Is there something in (or not in) the individual’s social network that will prevent or inhibit learning? Is there a time when someone should be included in a social network when they are excluded for unrelated reasons (e.g., race, religion, country of origin).

    What I would like to see addressed is this: What does the instructional designer need to consider/do that will allow learning to occur faster and better? Does the designer need to be a part of a community? Even if just for the period while they are developing the learning event? If so, how does the designer become a member? How does the instructional designer obtain access to a learner community?

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  4. gminks says:

    Lila you really need to start blogging! 🙂

    I’m working on a follow-up to the post, and I’m going to address the making and keeping the connection idea. I think about it in relation to my daughter’s disconnect with things because of her Asperger’s…she can learn anything but if she doesn’t know how to make a connection (or realize there is a connection that needs to be made) she is going to miss out on important information.

    Now how do you design for that? I’ll take a shot at answering some of the questions you post in my follow up post. we need the experienced folks like yourself to jump in here!

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